(4 August 2023) The sad annual commemoration of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima takes place on 6 August 45. The event, now 78 years ago, was swiftly followed by the bomb on Nagasaki on 9 August. This commemoration is surely needed more than ever. It reminds us of the devastation wrought by the bombs and is a moment to renew our efforts to ban nuclear weapons. The Russian-Ukrainian war underlines how necessary this is. We cannot continue to live in a world on the edge of destruction based on the uncertainty of nuclear deterrence.
The war of aggression waged by Russia’s imperialist army in Ukraine and the problems that invasion and occupation encounters has led to much discussion in the Russian media and political circles over the potential use of nuclear weapons. Julia Davis, an investigative reporter and analyst of Russian media posts regular excerpts of Russian state tv talk shows on YouTube, illustrating the carelessness with which propagandists and experts, and even the weatherman, consider their use.
Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian President and now deputy chair of Russia's Security Council, a body chaired by President Vladimir Putin, said on Sunday 30 July that Moscow would have to use a nuclear weapon if Kyiv's ongoing counter-offensive was a success. In effect, he is saying that Ukraine is attacking territories deemed to be part of Russia, on the basis of the staged referenda of 20 September 2022, and this would justify a nuclear response. This is madness.
The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant
The same is true of the Russian army’s occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The Russian army has mined the power plant with a veiled threat to blow it up if Russia is defeated, effectively turning it into a nuclear weapon. Our Ukrainian colleagues in the union of nuclear workers have called on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to create a safe zone around the power plant. The IAEA supports this but it is rejected by Russia, even including the trade unions of the FNPR confederation.
The IAEA says that “a nuclear or radiological accident during the ongoing conflict could have disastrous consequences for the people of Ukraine, for the people of Russia, as well as for neighbouring states, and beyond.” It has set out a set of principles to ensure nuclear safety and security during armed conflict. These range from ensuring the physical integrity of the facilities (including radioactive waste storage) to guaranteeing that operating staff can fulfil their safety and security duties and have the capacity to make decisions free of undue pressure. The IAEA has asked Russia and Ukraine to respect these principles which further include that:
- there should be no attack of any kind from or against the plant, in particular targeting the reactors, spent fuel storage, other critical infrastructure, or personnel;
- the plant should not be used as storage or a base for heavy weapons (i.e. multiple rocket launchers, artillery systems and munitions, and tanks) or military personnel that could be used for an attack from the plant;
- off-site power to the plant should not be put at risk. To that effect, all efforts should be made to ensure that off-site power remains available and secure at all times;
- all structures, systems and components essential to the safe and secure operation of the plant should be protected from attacks or acts of sabotage; and
- no action should be taken that undermines these principles.
The recently released film, Oppenheimer, reveals some of the history behind the creation of the atomic bomb and the role played by the lead scientist, J.Robert Oppenheimer. It does not, however, show the madness of the attacks on Hiroshima or Nagasaki. It also leaves out other stories – not least that of the miners that were exposed to radiation while digging up uranium without adequate safety gear. There is also nothing about the extent of the radioactive fall-out from the first test of the bomb. New research shows that within 10 days of the Trinity detonation 46 states of the US, Canada and Mexico experienced the fall-out. Even today there are people from the US state of New Mexico who are trying to get compensation for the effects of the radiation. This is another key argument for a nuclear weapons ban – they make countries unliveable for many years after.
Financial institutions cut investment in nuclear weapons industry
The war in Ukraine will lead many European countries to justify not signing up to the Treaty to ban nuclear weapons. In the pan-European region only Austria, Ireland, Kazakhstan and Malta have ratified the Treaty. European Council President Charles Michel wrote to EPSU to say that he would do little to convince the other EU countries to sign while the recent NATO summit in Vilnius explicitly argued against the Treaty. So, it looks like ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, despite winning the Nobel Peace prize in 2017, is hitting a brick wall. However, a more optimistic note is struck by ICAN’s new report Moving Away from Mass Destruction. This shows that many financial institutions – banks, pension funds, insurance companies and asset managers – are actively restricting investments in the companies producing nuclear weapons.
On 6 and 9 August we remember the victims of the atomic bombs. On the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, 26 September, we will campaign further for the Treaty to ban them. Our future can not be a militarised Europe. Doing away with nuclear arms in Belarus and Russia and in the countries of NATO could be part of the peace plan to bring security, peace, and social justice to the continent. We support the call of the editors of major health and medical magazines worldwide to underline to all that nuclear weapons are a major danger to public health and the essential life support systems of the planet. We need urge action to prevent it.
The joint editorial of the major medical journals refers to the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists which moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward to 90 s before midnight, reflecting the growing risk of nuclear war in January 2023. In August, 2022, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world is now in “a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War”. The danger has been underlined by growing tensions between many nuclear armed states.